Widely known for the pendant egg detail, Piero della Francesca’s Brera Altarpiece should be literally explained for what it represents: a hanging spawn.
Piero della Francesca is the most architectonic among Italian renaissance painters. Nevertheless, his cold-hearted rigorous attitude suddenly donates a symbolism that is powerfully unique in the panorama. Well did those modern art critics who realized that this weird egg could not be separated from the mother’s shell. But this insight has soon run out, and they scrambled on mirrors to think of a symbolic reason for this hieroglyph. And that for centuries.
The oil on the table we are examining is known as the “Brera Altarpiece” because it is now in Pinacoteca of Brera in Milano. But in the registers of “Convento di San Bernardino”, the first housing for the painting, the work was recorded as ” Sacred Conversation with Madonna and child, six saints, four angels and the donor Federico da Montefeltro”. To be fair, in the same register the work is even attributed to an author other than Piero della Francesca, that’s to say a not widely-known Fra Carnevale. Very less is also known about the agreements between Federico da Montefeltro, the client, and Piero della Francesca. According to some historians of art, the altarpiece was intended to take an important role in funeral affairs to honor the young wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Battista Sforza, who died in childbirth, and was portrayed by Piero della Francesca in the face of the Madonna.
Neither we know the exact date on which the work was painted, presumably before 1474, though the above mention register was recorded in the year 1472. Definitely, a masterpiece on which apparently no one wanted to take responsibility for having done and hosted. Among the other mysteries of the table, nobody knows why Federico da Montefeltro’s hands were repainted some years after ( probably by Pedro Berruguete, the painter of Urbino Court). Maybe some rings must disappear. On a duke Federico’s order, of course. Concerning the duke’s hands, is interesting to note the presence of his unwieldy iron gloves on the ground, as though there has been an intention to increase the pointing at these hands. Definitely, they seem to play a not negligible role in the painting.
Let’s that aside, for the moment, as well as the magnificent and monumental perspective, which is a distinctive Piero della Francesca’s feature, and focus on the egg. In fact, the altarpiece is universally known for its pendant egg detail. Not for the shell in the canopy of the half dome though, since this iconographic theme is not unusual in the fifteenth-century Italian painting panorama, especially the Florentine and Venetian one. Many Italian Madonnas have been portrayed under a huge marine shell. While this hanging-down egg is unique. So clear in its rendering to causes a state of perplexity among art critics, who have defined it “ostrich egg”. Perhaps intending to underline a singularity which instead, back in the renaissance, should have not.
Some historians of art have stated that Piero della Francesca could paint an egg, as a symbolic target, for the simple reason an egg represents a very effective three-dimensional architectural element. They treat Piero della Francesca as a modern artist who used to paint just mere perspective decorations for interior design reasons.
When it comes to proposing a symbolic perspective, instead, other modern historians have given the egg the meaning of caducity of life, suspended by the imminent thin thread of destiny ( drawing on the young duchess’s sudden death). But what about the upper shell? There is a current tradition to neglect the whole symbolic environment, and untie every single piece of symbolism as owning to a symbolic environment per sé. So, concerning the shell, they have put forward the symbol of “New Venus”. So the seed of life is banally hanging down from a huge new Venus. But, is it not blasphemous for a catholic to compare Mary, the mother of Christ to Venus, the voluptuous goddess? An out-of-place huge fertility celebration, according to them. Unless we look at a less popular aspect of Venus / Aphrodite, the goddess who is born without the intervention of a divine mother, but directly from the foam coming out of the genitals of Ouranos, castrated by Chronos-the-time. In this sense, Aphrodite might have more to do with an aspect of time than with fertility. Unless fertility has to do with the concept of time, of course.
The thesis is contradicted by other critics who, instead, have proposed the egg as a symbol of Mary’s virginity. They alone may know in what possible way ( I can guess because the egg is sealed closed ). By the way, what about the presence of countless rose flowers to beautify the coffered vault? Of course a tribute to Mary’s beauty as a new modest Venus. No wonder, Catholics have always been renowned for their fantasy not always sustained by sound rationality.
All these moderns fail to understand that even a mere decoration, if so, was highly tied to symbolism, at the end of the fifteenth century. And, in this case, they accept that they fail to accept the culture of the renaissance time. Good hermetic, and alchemical, knowledge was quite ubiquitous among the artists of the time, as well as their patrons (Federico da Montefeltro, as a young boy, was a student of the humanist Vittorino da Feltre). Little pieces of hermeticism were quite ubiquitously scattered in renaissance art. And here lies another problem: what kind of hermeticism are our modern historians willing to accept? In my opinion, a hermeticism so domesticated, and consequently so far from the real renaissance erudition, that they hardly go above and beyond pure triteness, so no wonder they have a real hard time in explaining a symbolism they have missed the bunch of keys to decrypt. I will try two types of explanation, one philosophical and one of laboratory alchemy.
The Neoplatonist Damascius, the last scholarch of the school of Athens, dedicates the end of the third book of his Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles to the Orphic rhapsodies and names the egg as a symbol of unification of principles and a means for unification. Chronos-time-before-time is the first principle; Ether and Chaos instead of the two principles; and the Egg instead of the pure Being. The White Tunic and the Cloud are synonyms for Egg (1). The terms “Cosmic” and “Cosmizing”, which can be attributed to the Egg, have a meaning of returning to its origins: here we are clearly facing the myth of the Archetype and the return to the Archetype.
Orphic fragment n. 70: “Then the great Chronos made by means of the divine Ether the Egg bursting with whiteness.” The Egg could therefore become, in a no less plausible way, the first mixed or the first being, which contains in itself all that will develop at lower levels. Ether, Chaos, Egg, such is the triad analogous to the first intelligible triad. But, from here, only Phanes remains to be the last and therefore clearest revelation of the intelligible.
Orphic fragment n. 66: “The Time which does not age and whose wisdom is imperishable, has engendered Ether and the great gaping chasm, whose immensity extends in all directions.” The Time once accepted as a symbol of the very first principle (the ineffable One), we should try to understand what lies beneath the symbol of the Ether, the so-called Heaven. Not coincidentally, these Orphic verses have attracted the attention of Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius. We must imagine that these concepts are represented by the Tetraktys, the reunification of the original archetype. So we are talking about the repetition of an Archetype. In this sense, the Egg of the Brera Altarpiece is a cosmic egg or seed of life.
Let’s now analyze the hanging egg symbol from the point of view of an alchemical laboratory. The ancients saw the shells as the unique animal to transform water in the earth (our element Water to element Earth). So the cosmic seed is not only being born by the universe but also by the element Water turned into Earth. In fact, the Egg is a sort of vitrification of our Prima Materia in the third work or last cooking.
Anyway one can’t help to ask oneself why Piero della Francesca’s egg is prevented to fall by a thread. So why this fear to fall, if everything around the universe must necessarily be the universe again? And, in the meanwhile, I also can’t help to look at duke Federico’s hands. But let’s get back to our main topic.
Even so, according to our modern historians, we are before a philosophical egg. Even if, for these scholars, philosophy must be an idea so abstract to result as impractical as a mere decoration. But, back at that time, people were not used to accepting symbols so abstract to come in useless, as we are used to.
The egg in the table is not suspended by a thread to simply suggest it’s hovering above the Madonna below. I refuse to think that Piero della Francesca had needed such a piece of ludicrous machinery to give a floating impression. I take this as an offense to this rigorous and genial painter, as well as nonsense. A Philosophical Egg, in the renaissance, couldn’t in any way be suspended for poetic and abstract reasons. It should have hung for real reasons. And here come in duke Federico’s hands. Because an egg is made to be hanging by human hands. It is a human ability to be able to suspend an egg from a shell. But that shell must be an alchemical shell. It is commonly accepted that so many renaissance masterpieces can contain alchemical details, while this altarpiece is often presented as an example of poetic and abstract symbolism. Well, here I’m sparing no effort in trying to demonstrate that this oil on the table is overtly putting on display, instead, the more practical, and hard to be made, piece of practical Alchemy. Piero della Francesca was the ratio made painting art.
The shell in the table is unequivocally a symbol of our huge Mercurial Sea becoming earth. As it was in many alchemical drawings of the time. Which is not less poetic than the universe itself, since we alchemists do believe that our Mercurius/Secret Fire is the Spirit of Life bringing Life to everything and everywhere. The Madonna is a mercurial symbol as well, of a different stage than one of the mothers of Sulfur-little Child (1). A sulfurous child who can be defined Egg, and without fear to appear blasphemous. In the end, the rose flowers beautifying the coffered vault, are the alchemical sulfurous blossoms per antonomasia. Don’t take for granted they must be red in color: the child wears two little coral trees (2) around his neck. It was a symbol to grant good fortune to the new baby, but also a symbol of alchemical Sulphur. One is red, but the other is white. Just like our two Sulphuri.
Some of you may have noted that this post just follows another one treating the philosophical egg according to ancient chemistry, where Nicaise le Fevre (3) has contended himself to give some hints on tools. In Alchemy this is the more secret and enigmatic topic. One of the reasons is that is rigorously handcrafted. The Philosophical Egg has to be skillfully suspended by hand (as Flamel seems to indicate). It is also known as a “Vase” because it is a real construction, composed of three levels, one of which seems to be really suspended. A less aesthetic-concerned renaissance painter, Hieronymus Bosch, will represent the same scene in a totally different way (4).
The “Vase-Egg” is the final, allowed known, step of the Art of Metals ( see an Opus Magnum scheme). Or, better, the first of the blurring steps (5).
We can now understand why Federico da Montefeltro’s hands have been so focused. It is a pity the entire hands’ area had been repainted. I wonder what Piero della Francesca had originally conceived.
(1) Damascius, Traité des Premiers Principes. De la Procession de L’Unifié, Les Belles Lettres, Paris 2002, page 159.
- See also Giorgione, Tempest & Aqua Pontica ;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens and Coral from Waters ;
- Nicaise le Fevre and the Egg inside the Egg ;
- Hieronymus Bosch and the Concert in the Egg ;
- See also Canseliet and the Art of Music and Weight , Brouaut’s Frontispiece, the Organ Pythagorean Proportions , Atorène, Music Theory Course for Alchemists. Part 1;